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Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and other media organisations are concerned about an undercover police tactic that puts officers at the scene in the guise of journalists.

Last week, local reports in Canada revealed that an Ontario police officer had masqueraded as a reporter to get close to Mohawk Indians who blockaded a highway as part of an Aboriginal Day of Protest in 2007.

In sworn testimony given as part of Mohawk protester Shawn Brant's trial, the officer, Steve Martell, said there are no real guidelines for undercover officers as to what roles they can or cannot play.

CJFE says the practice of impersonating journalists is "underhanded". Not only does it threaten journalists' safety and their ability to do their job, it also erodes freedom of the press in Canada - it makes it harder for journalists to gather and report the news and compromises the media's position as an independent party, says CJFE.

As Mary Agnes Welch of the Canadian Association of Journalists put it, "If someone at an anti-globalisation protest, a gang meeting or a hockey riot looks at the woman with a spiral notebook in her hand and wonders if that journalist is really a cop, they'll never speak to a reporter again.

"That dries up access to information the public needs to understand the nuance and depth of an issue, vital balance that catapults a story beyond what's said by officialdom at well-choreographed press conferences."

It isn't the first time police have used this ploy. The day before an Ontario Provincial Police sniper killed native rights activist Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995, OPP officers were caught on video pretending to be working for a fictitious media outlet. CJFE points out that when the tape came to light in 2004, the OPP promised to "revisit" the tactic.

CAJ remembers the incident last year when a Vancouver police officer posed as a reporter from a free daily to lure anti-poverty protester David Cunningham to a meeting, where Cunningham was arrested. A couple of years earlier, RCMP posed as a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) documentary crew to track down, interview and then arrest escaped convict John Bjornstrom. "And those are just the ones we know about," says Welch.

Nor is the practice confined to Canada's borders. Last week, the Colombia Defence Minister acknowledged that a soldier from the Colombian Army pretended to be a cameraman for the international television station Telesur during the recent rescue operation of 15 people held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But he also said the use of Telesur's logo was "an insignificant detail given the magnitude of the results."

IFEX member in Colombia the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) said the impersonation intensifies the already vulnerable position of journalists in Colombia and implies a refusal to recognise that, in armed conflicts, journalists have the status of civilians. The impersonation "stigmatises the press' role covering the armed conflict, and in particular, endangers Telesur international television station's journalists."

In Canada, the cops can't even make the argument that impersonating a reporter was the only way to save a life, says CAJ. "It amounts to little more than laziness, ham-handed attempts to trade on the trust people place in journalists instead of doing some basic police work."

CJFE, as well as CAJ and the CBC, has called on the Minister responsible for the Ontario police to step in and direct the force to end the practice. "Surely, there are enough police resources and proven investigative procedures available that misrepresentation and underhanded tactics such as these do not have to be used," says CJFE.

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- CAJ via
(30 July 2008)

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